Sunday, March 29, 2015


Religion & Spirituality | Meaning | Why? |
 Psychology of Palm Sunday

Nearly 2,000 years ago Jesus of Nazareth went public as a king. It was the first Palm Sunday. The crowd of supporters cheered as he rode into Jerusalem.  They honored him as a king ought to be honored with palm fronds and clothes before him and sang part of an old psalm (118). And the Jewish people welcomed him with expectations of salvation from Roman oppression. But what they got a week later didn't match their expectations. It didn't make sense. Jesus never does.

New religious movements pose threats to established religions. People identified as kings or leaders pose threats to national leaders. Then as now; people in power use their power to quash minority movements by attacking their leaders. Then as now; religious leaders join with political leaders in a combined effort to maintain their way of life. The words of Jesus were taken as a threat to both those who interpreted the Jewish religion for the Jews and those who governed the political state. The sign on the cross, King of the Jews, makes it clear why the Romans joined the religious leaders to end this threat. A psychological perspective on Palm Sunday and the aftermath invites us to consider the meaning of a threat in religious, cultural, and political situations. But it also important to appreciate threats in any relationship.

Who would believe that from this inauspicious start Christianity would become the world’s largest religion with over 2 billion followers? Psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and others who study religion offer different definitions for religion and spirituality. Christianity in one of its many forms provides a comprehensive meaning system for many people. It is one way people transcend nationalism. The same is true for Islam, Judaism, and other religions. Religion as a meaning system has considerable support. It’s the view I take.

In recent years, people are fed up with organized religion and identity as spiritual or none. None can mean they are atheists or spiritual in their own way. Although most Christians identify as Catholic, there are numerous Christian groups—some very old like the Orthodox groups and some very new like Pentecostals and Charismatics. Each offers a different worldview—a way of making sense of life.

When people are faced with their own threats they often turn to their faith for answers. Psychotherapists, counselors, and clergy often hear the cry of people surviving disasters: “Why?” “Why me?” Sometimes they echo Jesus words: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Christians want to know God’s whereabouts or purpose when disaster strikes. If you want someone else’s answer, go on the internet or turn to some religious TV channel. There’s all kind of folks willing to explain the mind of God to you—makes you wonder if there are as many gods as there are clergy.

Serious theologians and clergy have responded in many ways to these difficult questions. The problem of evil is not easily answered. Most draw on the perspective of their individual Christian tradition to explain evil in the world. Other religions have different answers. Philosophers have considered the problem as well—within and apart from a religious tradition. Others make their own way.

There’s something about human nature that demands an answer to the question, “why?” Life needs to make sense. 

Making sense of things has survival value.

Find causal connections among events and you are better prepared for the future.

There’s an incredibly funny scene in the movie Home Alone. Kevin, the child in the story, is home alone. One method of protecting himself from the threat of two thieves is to heat a metal doorknob. As expected, a thief grabs the knob and a letter is seared into the palm of his hand. The thieves learn quickly. The next time one reaches for the door they test the knob before grabbing it. 

If you know the cause of a painful act then you can eliminate the source of pain or avoid it. You gain a valuable lesson for the future. Your pain meant something—you learned a survival lesson. But sometimes things don't make sense. 

The problems of life don’t always offer easily understood connections. And sometimes complex schemes don’t make sense either. As children my wife and I saw impressive layouts of the end times—someone’s interpretation of the Bible. Those didn't make sense either. They just scared the hell out of you. Maybe that's what they were meant to do?

Palm Sunday is rich with meaning. The symbols would have meant one thing to the Jews and another to the Romans. Today they mean other things to Christians.  Packed in one week are lessons about love and betrayal, the fickleness of human nature and its capacity for cruelty, fears of death, pain and suffering, and mourning turned to joy.

We all create meaning in our own way. Some draw more heavily on what leaders teach than others do. Some speakers are brilliant—others not so much. But for most human beings, meaning is not just about a sensible set of explanations. Meaning affects our whole being. A meaningful spirituality is tied to reality
Easter procession, Antigua 2001 by Geoff Sutton
and affects our feelings, actions and even our health. What we believe can make a difference in how we enjoy life. And how we connect to other people.

Some faiths help people cope with tragedy and celebrate life. Others weigh down the faithful with burdensome rules and rituals. People leave one faith system and take on another—conversion. Sometimes it’s for financial reasons. Sometimes it’s for marriage. Sometimes it’s to find a more meaningful faith. And of course, some give up.

If you are a health or mental health provider I hope you know that most human beings are religious or spiritual—more than 90%. Unless you are patient and supportive you may never know the role faith plays in their reason for seeing you. A simple question about their religion doesn't help much. This increased sensitivity to spirituality is especially important during times of tragedy. I’ll list two books as reference works. The handbook (Paloutzian & Park) will introduce you to the psychology of religion. The book about spirituality and trauma (Walker et al.) offers sample questions and measurement tools along with treatment recommendations for integrating faith into the recovery process.

Does your spirituality make sense?

(For clinicians)

Does your patient's spirituality make sense to them?


Does your spirituality hinder or help you help them?


Palm Sunday symbolism. There is a treasure trove of symbols in the Palm Sunday story as well as the other stories leading up to Easter. For starters, Jesus did not come as a warrior king on a war horse. Donkeys were more peaceful animals. The palm fronds and clothes were different ways to show honor. Christians continue these traditions today. Jesus coming out as a king put him at risk as does the coming out that exposes the true identities of people throughout history.  Take off the mask, take off  the covering, come out of the closet-- people who reveal their identities risk rejection. The religious leaders argued with the Romans about the words on the cross-labels have meaning. There's more.

Bible References
Palm Sunday story: Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19; John 12. Jesus as a Jewish king Zechariah 9:9. “Why have you forsaken…” Matthew 27:46 ESV.

Disclosure: I’m a Christian. I most closely identify with the progressive movement as I understand it. I’m also a psychologist. I attempt to treat people of all faiths and no faith with respect. 

Connect or follow

Twitter @GeoffWSutton


Paloutzian, R.F. & Park, C.L. (Eds.) (2013). Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (2nd ed.). New York, Guilford.

Walker, D. F., Courtois, C.A., and Aten, J.D. (2015). Spiritually oriented psychotherapy for trauma. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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